About Orkney
 About the Site
 Search Site 
  The Battle of Summerdale

The Battle of Summerdale, in 1529, as any Orcadian should be able to tell you, was the last pitched "battle" fought on Orkney soil.

Although history, and local tradition, treats the confrontation as a battle, it was more likely to have been a brief, bloody, skirmish on the boundary of the parishes of Orphir and Stenness.

After the transfer of Orkney to the Scottish Crown in 1468, the former Earldom property was rented to tacksmen. These individuals collected the various skats, rents and other dues formerly paid to the Earls. Needless to say, some of the tacksmen were disliked and, in some cases, used their power unscrupulously.

In 1489, Lord Henry Sinclair, was tacksman. After his death at the Battle of Flodden, the tack was allowed to pass to his widow.

Henry's son, William, was a minor at the time of his father's death, so his uncle, Lord William Sinclair of Warsetter, took over Henry's legal duties. On Warsetter's death, young William Sinclair was made Justice Depute of Orkney, but his behaviour soon led to trouble and eventually a revolt.

The Sinclair uprising

A body of udallers, led by James Sinclair of Brecks, refused to pay dues for three years. These men, who feared the encroachment of Scottish feudalism into Orkney, rebelled.

James Sinclair, aided by his brother Edward (both illegitimate sons of Sinclair of Warsetter), led the uprising that led to the seizure of the Kirkwall Castle, the Sinclair stronghold.

A number of people were killed during the incident and William Sinclair fled from Orkney to take up refuge in Caithness.

There, the exiled Sinclair made an appeal to the Crown, asking for assistance to quash the rebellion in Orkney. The following year, a Royal demand was made to the insurgents to hand over the castle.

They refused.

So, acting on Royal authority, William Sinclair, with the help of his kinsman John, Earl of Caithness, raised a force of around 500 men from Caithness and invaded Orkney.

According to Orcadian tradition, the invading force landed in the parish of Orphir, on the north side of Scapa Flow. But Sir James Sinclair, well aware that they were approaching, had gathered a large body of Orcadians to resist the invaders.

Many traditional stories about the battle have been handed down over the ages.

The witch's prophecy

It was said that when the Earl of Caithness and his troops landed in Orphir, a witch walked before them on the march.

The crone unwound two balls of wool - one blue, the other red. The red ball was the first to run out and the witch assured the Earl that the side whose blood was spilled first would certainly be defeated.

It would appear that the Earl put great faith in the witch's proclamation. So much so that he was determined to slay the first Orcadian he met - man, woman or child - to ensure his victory on the day.

The first person he met was a defenceless young herd boy. The Caithness men fell on the hapless youth and murdered him. Only after the lad lay dead at their feet did they learn from the witch that their victim was no Orcadian - he was a Caithness boy who had taken refuge in Orkney.

Unnerved by the incident, if tradition is to be believed, the Caithness men's actions had a major effect on their conduct at the battle.

The battle by the loch

The Earl's men marched up the valley on the west side of the Loch o' Kirbister, while James Sinclair's Orkney rebels followed a route to the east side of the loch.

The two forces met at the valley of Summerdale and in the clash that followed, tradition says that the invaders were completely routed. They cast their weapons into the Kirbister Loch and fled the carnage. But the few who survived the battle were pursued as they ran back to their boats and slaughtered.

The Earl himself reached the farm of Oback and dashed in among the farm buildings to seek a hiding place, only to be met by a party of his enemies who slew him on the spot. It was said that the Earl's head was sent back to Caithness in defiance.

Only one Orkneyman is said to have been killed on that day. His death was a tragic one; after the battle he dressed himself in clothes taken from a dead Caithness man and on his return home his mother, thinking he was one of the enemy, struck him on the head with a makeshift weapon - a stone in the foot of a stocking.

James Sinclair's pardon

But despite Sir James Sinclair blatant defiance of the Crown, the King of Scotland not only pardoned him but also gifted him a feudal grant of the islands of Sanday and Stronsay.

Some maintain that this act of appeasement was made in order not to drive the islanders into the arms of King John of Norway and Denmark, who had pledged himself to redeem the mortgaged islands.